When I graduated as a Veterinarian from Sydney University in 2000 and started looking for my first job a Veterinarian, I knew I something different high pressure work environments and city lifestyle I saw my colleagues living in Sydney. I’d just finished 7 years of study and two University degrees and was feeling pretty burnt out and tired of living in the city and felt like I needed a change.
For a while, I thought that being a zoo veterinarian was the answer – and I did a month internship at Sydney’s fantastic Taronga Zoo. While this was a fantastic experience, it didn’t feel like the career for me.
I knew that I needed to go and implement what I learned to cement the learning of my veterinary science degree. My most powerful personal experience with vets was when our family Poodle, Cleo was stung by a redback spider and saved by the vet (I still remember crying at school when I heard the news), so I decided that being a small animal vet would be the most appealing option for me, but wanted a little bit of large animal work so that I could get a more rounded experience.
I started applying for jobs in the final weeks of University. I was pretty clear about what I wanted – or at least what I didn’t want:
- I knew I wanted to get out of Sydney and somewhere more rural and natural.
- I wanted somewhere warm – I was born in Queensland but had grown up in Canberra and Southern NSW – I was sick of being cold.
- I had a passion for growing my own food and a fascination with tropical fruit, so I decided the tropics were the way to go.
- I wanted a lifestyle practice – rather than a “work all day to make tons of money” approach.
I soon discovered “Making Tons of Money” wasn’t on the cards anyway: in spite of popular wisdom, veterinarians salaries are on par with teachers, unless they own their own business – I recall the starting salary was around $35,000 which still sounded like a lot to a broke student.
With these criteria in mind I started looking at jobs in Far North Queensland and the Northern Territory. This turned out to be a great move because the majority of vets wanted inner city work without after hours, so there were a number of good options. I was shortlisted for a job in Cairns and flown up for a one week trial.
Cairns was fantastic – thoroughly tropical, and the practice, Cairns Veterinary Clinic, was large, well resourced, and with a great team of friendly capable vets and nurses. I was thrilled when I was selected for the job.
This was a wonderful starting practice because it was large and busy enough to get great exposure, and because there were two branch practices I also had good opportunities to work on my own and do surgery and after-hours, which I loved.
I’d intended to stay for only a few years, but quickly fell in love with Cairns and bought a small hobby farm and owner-built a basic home. I was putting roots down and feeling more settled than I ever had before.
After 4 years, one of the 3 partners approached me with an unexpected and enticing offer – he was retiring, and wondered if I wanted to buy his share of the practice.
I hadn’t ever given much thought to practice ownership, but I was immediately interested, because the partners enjoyed an enviable work-life balance. I quickly agreed and became a Practice Partner in 2005.
Being a partner was fantastic – I was earning the same salary as our senior associate vets (around $60K p.a. then) but took 13 weeks holiday a year each, as well as a week of paid conference leave. On top of that we had parnership distributions from the practice, which made for a very comfortable salary and amazing work-life balance.
I loved the new setup, as it gave me plenty of time on my farm, with my horses, and later with my young family. I was often curious as to why we didn’t work harder and make more money. I was young and keen and my partners were in their late 50s, so obviously our priorities change over time!
The story behind the 13 weeks holiday has stayed with me, and it’s a great reminder for us to think carefully about what we are working for.
A decade or so before I arrived at the practice, all 3 partners had been working long hours and making great money, but the stress took it’s toll.
One of the partners had a severe heart attack, resulting in open heart surgery and a triple heart bypass to save his life.
This was a massive wake-up call for the whole practice. The partners realised that working all day, never seeing your kids, and ending up overworked, burnt out, or dead, wasn’t the way they wanted to live their lives.
As a result, they took on another associate, split the workload between 6 instead of 5 vets, and took the extra time off between the partners.
While I didn’t fully appreciate the wisdom of this decision when I first came on board (even though I loved the results), as I’ve grown older I’ve realised how important it is to prioritise your life, not just your work.
Further, it made me realise that having a practice or business that you love requires a conscious decision and brave action. If you just working without having a real vision for what you are creating you may end up surprised, disappointed or dissatisfied with the outcome.
The tragedy for many business owners is that it takes a disaster to force them to rethink how they live their life and run their business. For many vets and other business owners, depression, suicide, and burnout are all-too-common.
It’s much better, obviously, to change the direction of your business before you end up burnt out, depressed or dead.
With this in mind, I’m running a Webinar on Intentional Practice Design – how to create the practice you REALLY want.
If you’d like to learn more about designing the practice of your dreams (or extracting yourself from your current practice nightmare) you will love it.